Midwest: Red-Hot Wildcats Tops

Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith coaches from the sideline against Auburn in the second half in the semifinal of the SEC Conference tournament in the Superdome Saturday, March 15, 2003, in New Orleans. Kentucky defeated Auburn 78-58 and will face Mississippi State in Sunday's final game. AP

Ron Hunter belly flopped to celebrate when his team qualified for the NCAA tournament, so imagine what the IUPUI coach might do if the Jaguars win in the first round.

But before Hunter has to bang up his knees or scrape his elbows with more midcourt machinations, IUPUI would have to have pull off a floor-shaking upset in the Midwest Regional.

Top-seeded Kentucky, winner of 23 straight, a team so confident it didn't cut down the nets or watch the selection show Sunday after winning the SEC tournament, presents the most imposing challenge the Jaguars of the Mid-Continent Conference could face.

"We get a chance to play a great program like Kentucky. It's just awesome," Hunter said Sunday when the 16th-seeded Jaguars found out whom they would face in their first-ever trip to the tournament.

"Wouldn't it be nice to be the first 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 seed?" the exuberant coach asked. "People don't know how good these kids are."

Everyone knows how good Kentucky (29-3) is — unbeaten in regular-season conference play, no losses since Dec. 28, and on the country's most impressive roll entering Friday's opener in Nashville, Tenn.

"We only want to cut down one set of nets," Wildcats guard Keith Bogans said, meaning the ones at the Final Four in New Orleans on April 7.

"We're trying to play every game like it's the national championship," forward Erik Daniels said. "We don't want to lose and go home. We're on a roll and we don't want to stop. We want to get back here to New Orleans."

Another SEC team, Alabama, went in the opposite direction but still got in. After a 9-0 start and a brief No. 1 ranking, the Crimson Tide faltered, losing 9 of its final 14, including the SEC tournament first-rounder to Vanderbilt.

Still, the strength of schedule got the Tide (17-11) a No. 10 seed and a first-round matchup against No. 7 Indiana (20-12), which made it to the national championship game a year ago.

"No matter who we play, they won't know us," Indiana coach Mike Davis said after a tough one-point loss to Illinois in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. "Our goal is to go out and win six games."

The Alabama-Indiana winner could run into another team playing its best ball at the right time — second-seeded Pitt, fresh off a victory in the Big East tournament and a winner of nine straight.

The Panthers, behind Brandin Knight and a tough defense, face Wagner, winner of the Northeast Conference tournament, in the opener Friday at Boston.

Kentucky's second-round opponent at Nashville could be Oregon, winner of the Pac-10 tournament, or Utah, the regular-season champion of the Mountain West led by the colorful coach who always fills out his sweater — Rick Majerus.

Five years ago, Kentucky beat Utah in the NCAA championship game to give Tubby Smith a title in his first year with the Wildcats.

On Thursday in Indianapolis, No. 3 Marquette plays No. 14 Holy Cross, and No. 6 Missouri faces No. 11 Southern Illinois.

Marquette, behind versatile Dwyane Wade, won the Conference USA regular season, but was stunned in the tournament opener by UAB. Holy Cross won the Patriot League tournament and is playing in its third straight NCAA tournament.

Missouri got an at-large berth after the Tigers' massive comeback fell short in a 49-47 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament final Sunday, giving coach Quin Snyder a trip to the NCAAs in each of his four years. It is Missouri's fifth straight appearance.

Southern Illinois, making its second straight appearance under coach Bruce Weber, won two games in the NCAA tournament last season. The Salukis captured the Missouri Valley regular season before being routed by Creighton in the tournament finals, but were also picked as an at-large.

"I was trying to go through my mind what I was going to tell them if we did not get in," Weber said. "It was kind of a relief. We had felt confident all week that we were deserving of getting in. We hoped the last game didn't kill us."

At Spokane, Big Ten regular-season winner Wisconsin, seeded fifth, plays Big Sky winner and No. 12 Weber State; and No. 4 Dayton, which won the Atlantic 10 tournament on its home floor, faces WAC tournament winner Tulsa, the 13th seed.

The Badgers captured their first outright Big Ten title since 1947 this season after sharing it a year ago, but were ousted in their tournament opener by Ohio State.

by Rick Gano
  • John Esterbrook

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